This article first appeared on Happify.com
One night at the Tampa Improv many years ago, we all laughed as the female stand-up picked on the differences in mental patterns between men and women.
“You ask a man what he’s thinking, lying there on the couch all silent, and he says, ‘nothing’. You don’t believe it, right? But he means it! There is absolutely zero activity in his brain. All the lights are out!”
It may have seemed comical at the time. But in our current world of being assaulted with information and with our growing understanding of mindfulness, many of us have begun to yearn for the state of “nothingness”.
What we most wish to get rid of is the caustic internal heckler that never takes a break. It’s the voice that never tires of pointing out our faults and failings, and drags us into a downward spiral of guilt and shame.
Unfortunately, we haven’t quite gotten the hang of how to deal with this voice. Most often, we fall into its trap. When we feel exceptionally brave, we argue with it in an effort to reinstate our (sometimes shallow) belief in ourselves. But there is something essentially wrong in this effort—we’re arguing with a voice that is inherently irrational, since it vies for nothing short of perfection. In this losing battle, it will always come out the winner.
There’s a better way. Instead of trying to convince the voice (and thus ourselves) that we’re better than it would like to make us believe, we can simply walk away, providing ourselves with the mental space to reflect on improvement and to do what needs to be done.
And guess what—it’s not as hard as you think!
Breathe for Relief
Breathing is a powerful technique to break the neural loop of the inner critic. When you focus on your breath, your attention is drawn away from its mental chatter and towards the rhythm of the rise and fall of your body’s breathing pattern. Supplement it by saying something kind to yourself such as “I am safe” on each inhale and feel the warmth of compassion flow through you on each exhale.
Give it a Name
The inner critic is one sneaky fellow. It creeps into our minds and speaks in our voice, thus fooling us into believing its words. We can catch ourselves well before falling prey by giving it a name. This simple technique reminds us that we are not the voice. Some people like to give it a funny name so that they can also remember to not take it seriously. One client of mind called hers Olaf. Another called hers Rumpelstiltskin!
Open up to Nature
Step out onto the balcony and look toward the sky. The beauty and wonder of the world distances us from our inward focus and gives rise to feelings of awe. Research out of UC Berkeley shows that we do not have to wait for the perfect sunset or a trip to the Grand Canyon to experience awe. We can feel it in the most mundane things if only we open up to them—perhaps it’s the way the sunlight enters your room or the changing colors of the leaves in the fall. It’s a great way out of the negativity of the inner critic.
Reappraise Its Demands
Once you feel calmer, you can listen to its demands in order to take the right action. More likely than not, you’ll find that it expects perfection—an unrealistic demand that’s unachievable by its very definition. Remind yourself of your perfect imperfection as you adjust the expectations you hold of yourself. Simple mantras such as “I am enough” or “I am my shadow as well as my light” give you the strength to live with your opposing truths. As educator Parker Palmer said in his spectacular commencement address at Naropa University, it allows you to “take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself” in order to become whole again.
Beyond the Self
The “self” does not exist in any specific area of the brain, and yet takes up all our mental space when it feels threatened in any way. What does occupy half our brain is the right hemisphere that’s all about perspective and connection. When we are down and hard on ourselves, we need to engage this part of our brain and find ways of opening up to the needs and possibilities around us. Dr. Jenny Crocker, a self-esteem researcher at Ohio State University, says that belonging to an eco-system of other people is the best way out of the ego-system of the inner critic.
The inner critic is life’s reality, a gift of evolution and of the ability to communicate through language. But evolution has also given us something quite unique—the ability to disconnect from unconscious mental habits and consciously reflect on the best way forward. In doing so, we break free from the chains of our Olafs and Rumpelstiltskins and rise to our highest potential.
Now its your turn! Do you have a critical voice living in your head? How do you deal with it?